Language of cancer
Understanding the vocabulary helps you communicate.
Receiving a cancer diagnosis can feel
like waking up in a foreign country,
where you don’t know the language
and customs, and you have no maps
to find your way home.
In the first weeks after your diagnosis,
you’ll likely meet with an array
of different specialists, undergo a
variety of tests, and encounter a
whole lexicon of new cancer- and treatment-related terms. While
the language of cancer can be intimidating,
learning the basics can help you
gain control of your new situation and
give you clarity as you make important
decisions about your treatment.
Types of cancer
There are five major types of cancer,
based on the type of tissue where the
diseased cells originate:
Carcinomas are solid tumors that can
form on almost any organ, including the skin. Adenocarcinomas start in
the cells covering a gland, such as the
ovaries, and squamous cell carcinomas
form in the cells covering other
internal tissues, such as the cervix or
lungs. 80% of tumors are classified
Sarcomas start in connective tissue
such as muscle, fat, cartilage, and
bone. Tumors in fatty tissue are called
liposarcomas, and bone tumors are
Leukemias are hematologic, or blood,
cancers that originate in the blood or
blood-forming organs. These cancer
cells don’t usually form solid tumors.
Lymphomas are hematologic cancers
that develop in the lymphatic
system — the network of nodes and
vessels that transports lymphatic fluid
through the body.
Myelomas, cancers that start in plasma
cells found in bone marrow, were
once considered uncommon but are
now diagnosed much more often.
Since most parts of the body
are composed of different kinds of
tissue, it’s possible for two people with
tumors of the same primary site to
have different types of cancer. Uterine
cancers, for example, are usually
carcinomas, but they can also occur
as sarcomas, if they develop in the
connective tissue of the uterus.
Major defensive players
The immune system plays a major
role in helping your body fight cancer.
Here are some of the forces on the
- The lymphatic system which includes
lymphatic vessels, lymph nodes,
and the spleen, helps the body to
cleanse itself of bacteria and other
- Leukocytes, or white blood cells, protect
the body by repairing damaged
cells, killing foreign organisms, and
helping heal injured tissue.
- Protein molecules called antibodies are created when the immune system
detects an antigen — a bacteria, virus,
or other invader. Each antibody is
uniquely designed to destroy a
- Natural Killer, or NK, cells patrol the
body, looking for cancerous cells
and viruses. Unlike antibodies, NK
cells carry about 100 poisonous
chemical substances and can destroy
intruders quickly, without ever
having seen them before.
Learn the language
You may find it hard to keep track of
all the cancer terms you come across
during your diagnosis and treatment.
Here are a few to remember:
Primary tumor. A cancer is named after
its primary site, or the part of the body
in which it develops. For instance,
cancer that develops in the breast and
spreads to the bone is still called breast
cancer, not bone cancer.
Metastasis. When cancer spreads from
the primary site to other organs or
tissues of the body, it is said to metastasize.
Cancer usually spreads through
the blood or the lymphatic system.
Progression. The growth of a tumor
or the spread of cancer throughout
the body is a progression. If cancer
appears to be in remission but it
comes back after less than three
months, it’s most likely a progression,
not a recurrence.
Remission. When diagnostic tests show
that cancer is no longer present, the
cancer is in remission. Some doctors
use this term and NED (no evidence of
disease) interchangeably. While cancer
cells may remain, they’re undetectable.
Recurrence. This indicates the return
of cancer after a time of remission.
Stable disease. A cancer that is
neither growing nor getting smaller
in response to treatment is said to